Inert main aims, measurable objectives, discovery-destroying learning outcomes are bricks in the wall

From time-to-time I like to stocktake where I think classroom learning is. I do this because I think it is important schools don’t regularise the terrible or make normal the grossly abnormal. I sense this could be happening. My view is that schools are staffed with hard working, kindly, and professional people but that classroom learning, ironically amidst an ocean of objectives, has lost its way. Schools are very busy but to what important learning purposes? The paragraph that follows suggests one reason why this might have happened. From my visits to hundreds of schools, say, over the last three years, what follows would relate to most of them.

A manifestation terrible to children’s learning motivation and teacher professionalism is occurring – students at colleges of education and teachers in classrooms are being structured to believe that the central task in teaching is putting together an array of objectives, and a strange phenomenon called learning outcomes, all declared as needing to be observable. And at the top of this array is a heading, often abstract and grand sounding, always bland and inert – designed to leave the field open to objectives taking learning in all sorts of directions as long as they are measurable. One senses that for many teachers the construction of such arrays is considered the ultimate in being a professional; the pedagogical endgame. In reality much of what is done is thoughtlessly copied from elsewhere – the antithesis of professionalism.  Rather than teaching to a dynamic main aim to provide learning coherence, teaching is fragmented to parts of learning, made worse by learning having to be observable. That usually leads to the proper main aim of a curriculum area, the essence of a curriculum area, being neglected. For instance, in expressive writing, the main aim, the essence of the curriculum area, is writing with sincerity, but that main aim is never referred to in classroom expressive writing in New Zealand (nor even hinted at in the standardised e-asTTle writing test). An array of objectives, and learning outcomes headed by a bland, inert goal is not a mark of teacher professionalism, just the reverse; it is a construction of bricks in the wall – bricks that need to be taken down before real professionalism and real teaching and learning can occur. And then there are learning outcomes that children have to parrot before lessons begin. Where do children reciting learning outcomes leave discovery learning? Perhaps learning outcomes might have some value if, in expressive writing, for instance, the children recited: We will write with sincerity, but what chances of that? Under the new neoliberal order, teachers and principals will have their professional development mainly directed to administration and computers (and I note so do programmes of principal associations), on the odd occasion when directed to the curriculum it will be undertaken by official providers with their carefully prescribed attention to observable, therefore measurable objectives. Where will be the curriculum discussions of the sort that used to occur? Be assured, there won’t be the opportunity or the audience. When did you as a teacher or principal go to a science or social studies course; or is that curriculum with its high-fangled heading and array of observable objectives and learning outcomes all sorted?

A networkonnet reader understood and sent me the following quote:

‘Society will develop a new kind of servitude which covers the surface of society with a network of complicated rules, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate. It does not tyrannise but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.’
Alexis de Tocqueville

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9 Responses to Inert main aims, measurable objectives, discovery-destroying learning outcomes are bricks in the wall

  1. John McCaffery says:

    I agree -Great article to discuss and debate
    We need to consider the strengths and limitations of LO / LI and be looking for ways to assist learners improve their own learning. That is why LI are very useful if they help learner /s become more metacognitive about their own learning and their next steps – may apply to a number of learners at same time of course -hence grouping

    LO are necessary but not sufficient on their own

    LO need to arise from out of the learners ZPD current position –they may or may not be aware of this

    Assessment tools usually lags significantly behind curriculum innovations and individual progress and needs causing serious mismatches e.g. Writing where the goal is to enable students to use a range of purposes for different audiences in any one piece of text /writing (As recommended by NZ MoE in SELLIPS now )

    One solution is to strengthen significantly setting using and mapping for children the Key Competencies which contain the essential Dispositions alongside the LO from Curriculum areas – which Margaret Carr has been writing so much about and which is being explored in a current review -tweak? of the Curriculum The NZC really encourages using these dispositions for L&T and assessment alongside the LO from Curriculum areas. This would at least be within the existing sound curriculum model and balance up the LO limitations and obsessions


    John McCaffery. University of Auckland

    • Kelvin says:

      Thanks for that informed and interesting response (and great to hear from you): objectives are OK as long as controlled by a dynamic main aim.
      Terrific to see a person of your great experience at university.

  2. Bruce Hammonds says:

    Exactly what I think Kelvin.

    Like you ( as a school adviser in science and art and in later years as independent educational adviser) I have visited countless classrooms over the years – although I no longer have the opportunity, or even the interest. My few visits now disappoint.

    When I did visit rooms I was always on the lookout for teachers who really valued the ‘voice’ and ‘identity’ of the students they taught. I looked for teachers who helped their students develop unique responses to their learning experiences; teachers who valued the questions ( and current theories) of their students; teachers who challenged their students’ views and then helped them dig deeper; classrooms whose walls displayed with pride creative art work. Teachers who valued developing positive attitudes towards all aspects of learning – who believed , with appropriate help, all students can learn.

    I such rooms it was the students achievements that were celebrated.

    Teachers I admired saw their classrooms as communities of artists and scientists – with teachers assisting students in their desire to make sense of things..

    This was once the direction primary education was heading until all this neo-liberal measuring progress and worshiping of evidence.

    In the past decades such a creative approach has been all been all but replaced by the formulaic , so called, ‘best practice’ approaches you refer to: WALTS, success criteria, pre-planned measurable objectives/outcomes and so on, All these ‘best practices’ have morphed into unthinking ‘fixed practice’. Classrooms – whether self contained or ‘modern learning environment’ – now reflect a clone like conformity.Sadly even the art on display all looks the same. In such classrooms teachers are impossibly expected to know what their students are to achieve from every lesson,

    It wouldn’t be so bad if such ideas above always had as one of their criteria ( the most important) that ‘students should aim to make their work different from other students – to reflect their individuality’.

    Today , as one commentator has written, it seems that ‘the evil twins of literacy and numeracy have all but gobbled up the entire curriculum’. Ability grouping is more hardwired than ever creating long term consequences in negative student attitudes, and the concentration on National Standards is sacrificing students whose talents lie elsewhere.

    Teachers have been reduced to the compliant citizens of refereed to in the de Tocqueville quote.

    Schools , as you say, seem have lost their way

  3. Kelvin says:

    Beautiful dear friend. Will, with your permission, put up as a posting in a few weeks. I urge people to share. Bruce is the strongest link we have with Oruaiti,

  4. Rosalie McFarlane says:

    Thanks Kelvin you have succinctly hit on what concerns me. We are developing a lopsided education system. Surely in education there is a time to say
    This is what we are learning
    However there should equally be a time to say
    What is the learning we can take from this
    The later will always be the more powerful of the two for me

    Keep up the insights I appreciate the challenge

  5. John McCaffery says:

    John McCaffery on Elwyn Richardson s 2012 Reprinted text
    The third 2012 edition of In the Early World by Elwyn Richardson first published in 1964 (reprinted1994), was launched by the publisher the New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER) at the Elwyn Richardson Community Hall at Lincoln Heights School on Friday 15 June 2012 with the author Elwyn Richardson present. The publishers in their press release say “this book helped change the course of education in New Zealand and across the world. This third edition restores the original colour of the first edition and includes several new colour photographs and illustrations, giving readers a better feel for the richness and creativity of the Oruaiti school environment. Richardson’s 1961 publication 40 Oruaiti Prints has also been included here as an appendix. The book contains a new foreword by educationalist Dr Gwenneth Phillips as well as an epilogue that brings the story up to the present day.
    Described by one reviewer as “possibly the best book about teaching ever written”, this book is important not only as a brilliant demonstration of the creative capacities of all children but also in its profound implications as to the nature of the learning process. Elwyn Richardson and his small rural primary school at Oruaiti in Northland in the 1950s became an international symbol of progressive education in New Zealand with a child-centred approach to learning focusing on creative and environmental education. The experimental school featured an integrated curriculum built on and out of the children’s lives, values education, inquiry learning, philosophy, te reo Māori, creative thinking and the arts”.
    Seeking to provide a review of this third edition of In The Early World I was in inevitably carried back into my own Wellington Teachers College experiences which included the use of the first edition as a text in courses on teaching and learning and the enormous personal impact the work has had on my own philosophies of life, learning and professional and academic career.

    The appeal of this text is timeless and speaks to us today with same power and potential held within its pages for the last nearly 50 years. It challenges us to adopt Paulo Freire’s (1972) call to critically “read the world behind the worlds” and not simply accept the text at face value.

    Thus the book will speak to many different readers across a number of disciplines in terms that show in practical concrete terms how our most significant philosophies, beliefs and values can live on, be affirmed and be rejuvenated even in the darkest times. The power of the text arises then from the integration of at least three sweeping human themes from which it is almost impossible to escape, even in these top down, low professional confidence, managerial and PBRF dominated times.

    Firstly and most importantly the book re-lights the beacon for the potential of an education system based on an integrated approach to Inquiry and growing out of the lived world of children and their families (Biddulph, Biddulph, & Biddulph, 2003). Though our NZ Curriculum ( Ministry of Education, 2007) presents such a vision there is a rapidly growing gap between this curriculum vision and the actual reality of many children’s lived worlds in our schools. The new 2012 forward by Dr Gwenneth Phillips pulls no punches and tells it like it is. As she says, “The ways of working captured through these stories are in stark contrast to those that have emerged in the last decades….These outcome based approaches like the teacher dominated approaches of yester-year are the antithesis of child–centred approaches They marginalise children and show little respect for their creative power to develop their own life-learning pathways”(p.viii ). In an era of National Standards and increasing attacks on teachers work this beacon is badly needed by us all.

    Secondly, the marginalisation of the arts which began in the 1993 NZ Curriculum( MoE, 1993) lumped the Visual arts, Drama, and Music together in one Curriculum area to make greater room for Science and Technology, Mathematics and Literacy. This text reminds us yet again of the importance of recognising the specific value and contribution of the Arts to all aspects of children’s development and overall education in all curriculum areas. The central place and value of the Arts in children’s development has by and large been ignored it seems, by many in the non-arts educational world.

    Thirdly need to revise our thinking to genuinely build quality programmes on the lives, languages, cultures and experiences of our diverse school age populations is greater than ever (Alton-Lee, 2003; McNaughton, 2002). Sadly this aspect of the work which was emphasised in my teacher education by Tipene O’Regan, Barry Metcalf, Des Kelly, Colin Martin and others from Wellington Teachers College, got lost along the way. Richardson’s work became seen to be mostly about the Arts and giftedness rather than the nature of education itself. In spite of the 40 year tradition of educators at all levels saying we use the approaches and curriculum thinking of Sylvia Ashton Warner (Ashton–Warner,1979,1968, 1986) and Elwyn Richardson (1964) in Maori and Pacific education, the reality is we do not, and have not done so (Bishop, Berryman, Cavanagh, Teddy, & Clapham, 2006). It has taken us forty years even to get a Curriculum for Te Reo Māori in primary schools .

    To honour such approaches we need give at least 1/3 of the time and engagement of any Inquiry work to inquiring into the topic/ theme and research questions in the lives of our students first. Then the next 1/3 to examining the new information the new worlds, other peoples worlds or situations. Finally we need to give the final 1/3 to come back to our students own lives and explore the question “so what now”? What implications does this study of our own and other peoples lives have for our school our lives now? Any less than this than this is likely to result in less than the traditions and work of Ashton Warner and Richardson showed us can be achieved (Corson, 2001; Cummins, 2000, 2001). As Cummins (1986) notes; “widespread school failure does not occur in minority groups that are positively oriented towards both their own and the dominant [language and ] culture, that do not perceive themselves as inferior to the dominant group and that are not alienated from their own cultural values” (p.22)

    This book does not just deserve so be read and revisited by all educators and education researchers, it needs to be read and the issues it raises need to be again tabled, debated, fought for and defended if all our children are to become the next generation of adults believing in themselves as people of worth with something special to contribute to society with the human values and principles so centrally needed in this increasingly materialistic and outcomes driven world. Kia ora tatou katoa.

    Also available is a DVD featuring a 32 minute film first released in 1994 featuring footage of Oruaiti School shot by Elwyn Richardson in 1960 with a commentary by the author. The DVD includes a documentary entitled The Song of the Bird made in 1989 by the Auckland College of Education featuring an interview with the author.

  6. Kelvin says:

    Thanks John: this contribution graces the pages of the website. Catherine Lang used to take the holistic and Elwyn with her students at Hamilton. I hope you can squeeze something in up there. There is a tendency to dismiss all that as old fashioned – but motivating and moving children affectively and cognitively should never be out of fashion. Thanks again – a great read.

  7. Bruce Hammonds says:

    I was present at the launching of the reprint of Elwyn’s book.

    Elwyn had been an inspiration for a group of Taranaki teachers in the 1970s and visited the province to give interested teachers an insight into his approach. I regularly visited him at his home at Taupaki to share ideas and, in later years, how the creative teaching ideas we shared were being lost.

    Although Elwyn, and to a lesser degree Sylvia Ashton -Warner , were very important to our work we were also influenced by what we read about progressive junior schools in the UK. inspired by the publication of the Plowden Report in 1969. As well there the open education ideas from the US. Authors like John Holt and Roland Barth come to mind.

    Another important influence was the developmental approach to learning that were to be seen in junior classes. This was another approach from the UK – educationalists like Susan Isaacs come to mind.

    For the group of teachers I worked with in Taranaki the UK Nuffield Junior Science publications were also seminal. I visited progressive primary schools in the UK to see for myself and was impressed. Interestingly the teachers I met were well aware of Elwyn’s book.

    The final influence for the spreading of creative integrated teaching ideas was the work of the Art Advisers led by Gordon Tovey. There was a link with the Northern Maori project led by the art advisers and Elwyn. These developments had their genesis in the vision of the Director of Education Dr Beeby and the philosophy of John Dewey et all.

    Another group of innovative schools we were aware was centred around Southland. This group had its focus on students writing and was ‘led’ by people such as John Heenan and Harry Hood. I also know of teachers throughout NZ, through association with the art advisers, who were working in a creative ways.

    At present all the above developments have all but been forgotten.

    We were on the way to develop a holistic learning in NZ until the changes implemented by Tomorrows Schools and, in particular ,the 1993 NZ curriculum with its technocratic structure and its impossible assessment requirements.

    The 2007 NZ Curriculum was an important re-visionary document that , if implemented, would have led to education once again heading in the right direction – the holistic education written so well about by Kelvin.

    Unfortunately a change of government and the introduction of the reactionary National Standards has stalled implementation of the 2007 NZC – along with all the formulaic imposed teaching practices mentioned by Kelvin in his posting.

    Thankfully there are still creative teachers out there but they work in a toxic environment and need all the support we can give them. This is the point of Kelvin’s writings.

    The re-publication of Elwyn’s book was a good start.

  8. Kelvin says:

    Bruce – these are important ideas for the record (as well as the present).

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